O Radix Jesse
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
The birth of John the Baptist foretold
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’
In recent days we have reflected upon and celebrated the life and ministry of John the Baptist. Today, in these final few days before we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we hear of another miraculous birth. Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were faithful believers in God, childless and elderly. Zechariah was a priest and, when it was his turn to enter the sanctuary of the Lord he was confronted by the angel Gabriel. The angel spoke of incredible matters: Elizabeth bearing a son, a son who will be great in the sight of the Lord, a son with the spirit and power of Elijah. When we think of Zechariah’s experience in these terms, we are probably not surprised that he was sceptical. But, the angel and his message were true, and the scepticism of the elderly priest was punished: you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.
There are many proverbs and sayings which suggest that silence is preferable to speech: Speech is silver, silence is golden being one such proverb. Most cultures have sayings that express a similar sentiment. Perhaps we should pause and think about Zechariah’s predicament in the light of such received wisdom.
Zechariah spoke with an angel, an angel that brought him a great message of hope. For a couple to be childless would have been a couple who felt disgraced, not worthy of the gift of parenthood. However, the angel brought news that would change this for Zechariah and Elizabeth. And yet, the elderly priest set aside his faith and sought a human rationale, a rationale that suggested that God was incapable of working this miracle. Then came the nine months of silence.
For most of us the only moment when we choose to be silent comes during annual acts of remembrance. Two ‘long’ minutes of silence once a year, often feels like quite enough, but Zechariah was condemned to nine full months of silence. When we are silent we are urged to set aside the humdrum and the ordinary as we pause to give thanks for those who have sacrificed everything for us. Zechariah was given the opportunity to do just the same. As a priest he was given time to reflect upon the scriptures he knew so well, and to see the truth in the words of the angel.
Every year we will hear those who are sceptical about the birth of Jesus: whether Mary was truly a virgin; whether her son could possibly be the Son of God; whether angels, shepherds and wise men really came to worship at a stable. Those sceptics would do well to pause and reflect on all that has happened because of the miraculous births of John and Jesus. In the same way, we should reflect upon our reaction to God’s presence in our lives. Do we question and reject that which seems unreal, simply because we do not understand it? Or, do we open our hearts and our minds and allow God to work in and through us? The choice really is ours!